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Seventeen years into a career serving nonprofits, Heather Milardo says working at the Estuary Council of Seniors is the most rewarding job she’s taken. (Photo courtesy of Heather Milardo )
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Heather Milardo has served as development coordinator for the Estuary Council of Seniors (ECS) in Old Saybrook for 2 ½ years and it’s safe to say her level of job satisfaction is high.
“I love this job,” she says. “I have been more comfortable and happy here than at any job that I have had before in my life.”
While there are administrators who tend to stay in the background, Heather is not one of them.
“Fundraising is about relationship building and if I can’t be front and center and meeting people, then I can’t know what matters to them,” she explains. “Then I can’t speak to what we need to raise the money for.
“Also, with the center...there’s one thing I have loved since I’ve come on there,” she continues. “There’s never been a feeling of ‘That’s not my job.’ It’s understood that we all jump in to do whatever it takes to make things run smoothly.
She gives the center’s transportation coordinator as an example of dedication during the COVID pandemic.
“Because we’re not running transport, she’s in the kitchen helping to prepare meals and pack meals and prep food,” she says, following that with a note about the director: “He’s the one that’s changing the light bulbs and running things for the thrift store out to storage. Someone’s taking out the garbage. Everybody wears every hat.”
Fundraising During a Pandemic
“What I do is fundraising and outreach—just really trying to bring more awareness to the program and to the center itself,” she explains. “And then raising money to support the programs because we are a nonprofit. The majority of funding comes from outside sources, whether grants or donations.”
Now, in the middle of a pandemic, she, along with the rest of the ECS staff, is facing some new challenges. Despite being closed to the public, ECS continues to offer meals to seniors as a grab-and-go service. It’s also carrying on with its crucial Meals on Wheels program. Both are offered at no charge to seniors.
Meals are prepared and packaged at ECS. Seniors reserve their grab-and-go meals a day in advance, then drive up to the building, where meals are deposited in their trunk or in the car itself. Staff and volunteers wear masks and gloves.
While ECS normally has about 200 volunteers, many are older and have had to step back in order to avoid exposure to COVID-19. In addition, the organization made the difficult decision not to recruit additional volunteers.
“We don’t want to expose our homebound seniors to more people,” Heather explains.
Managing to come up with the funding for these programs is more difficult than ever.
“It’s tough because...we have internal revenue streams,” Heather says. “A store, Bingo every week—all of those add to our bottom line. Without...them, we are strictly operating on grants and individual donations. So there’s been a lot more pressure to make sure that we’re securing that funding.”
But there’s widespread understanding that seniors are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and that the necessary precautions are resulting in social isolation and food insecurity.
“Different grant organizations reach out to us, trying to put some emergency funding together,” she explains. “I’ve been invited to apply for a couple of different grants. It’s hard. This is a struggle for everybody for a lot of different reasons. But I think it’s also bringing out the good in a lot of people, too, and they really are trying to find ways to help everybody around them.
“We’re all uncertain,” she continues. “We’re all nervous, but people are trying to do everything they can to support the programs and help the businesses that are still going.”
An Ideal Place
Heather grew up and attended college in Western Pennsylvania, and majored in English and communications.
Public relations “was my goal,” she says. “When I came out, like many college graduates, whatever got my foot in the door somewhere—I would take whatever job I could find.
“I moved to Charleston [South Carolina] and was basically living off savings,” she recalls. “A job at a tech company was available and kind of fell into my lap.”
The company made software for nonprofits, which led Heather to realize that it was the nonprofit side of things that appealed to her.
The job turned out to be serendipitous in another way: It was there that she met her future husband, Christopher.
“He had just graduated from graduate school and had been working at this company to put himself through grad school,” she says.
Christopher has a master’s in biology, and was in the process of looking for a job in his field.
“We overlapped at that company for a six-month period,” she says. “He was getting ready to leave.”
After their son was born, the couple decided to move closer to family. Christopher was from Old Saybrook and the two had traveled back many times to visit his family.
“I had loved Saybrook just from visiting with him,” she says. “Before we moved back here we’d always said, ‘If we could pick our ideal place, it would be a small town, somewhere on the water, a community-minded area’—and the more we talked about it, the more we realized that we already knew where that was,” she says.
The Need is There
It’s been roughly 17 years since her switch to working for nonprofits and Heather hasn’t looked back.
“I’ve done continuing care communities, I’ve done healthcare, but the majority has been with seniors,” she says.
“I absolutely fell into it a long time ago...and working with [seniors], realized that this was a population that meant a lot to me,” she says. “I felt a need to be involved and a need to serve.”
Additionally, she says, “I just recognized that the need is there. It’s a very overlooked population.”
ECS is able to assist with two serious issues that face local seniors: food insecurity—as so many retirees get by on fixed incomes—and social isolation.
In many cases, “their kids have moved away,” Heather says. “A lot of times they’ve lost their spouse.
“There’s been a lot of studies that the more isolated people are, the more it leads to depression and poor health,” she continues.
The senior center is “a place to go and a way to stay active,” she says. “We give them somewhere to go and something to do—ways to be active, too, that are appropriate for certain ages. We have a gym that is focused on their abilities. We have gentle yoga. It keeps their bodies active and their minds engaged.”
In addition, the center offers book clubs, writers’ groups, and card groups.
All these groups “are great,” Heather says, “but it’s just sitting and talking to other people. And physical activity benefits both aspects. They could be downstairs on the treadmill—they’re still talking to other people, they’re still engaged.”
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